Saturday, January 11, 2014

Generic Christian

Many Americans like to go to church because they were raised that way. They have always done it, their friends do it, and it is part of their heritage. They like dressing for it, they have friends at church, it has comforting and familiar rituals, it is a good environment for the children, and will (hopefully) teach the kids some good moral values. They look forward to this special type of reconnection with their community, and church is the channel through which it is done. The pastor or other leaders are role models who can be looked up to and emulated.

Lots of parents, who themselves didn't used to go to church, will find a "church home" once the kids are born. It is a good way to make contact with other parents in a similar situation. The rituals - the greeting, the sermon, singing, praying, the doxology, taking the collection, listening to the choir, filing in and out of the "nave" (where the people sit to hear the sermon), taking communion, the benediction, etc are all comforting and familiar rituals. Participating in them reinforces social bonds and help the members recommit to their shared world-view. It makes people feel good to participate, and to be with other people who feel the same way.

As to whether this involves a particular view of exactly what the god that is being worshiped is actually like will depend on the individual. This particular "conception of god" is mostly about the social bonds that come with being a member of the "church family". For the most part, members of a church congregation don't try to dissect their belief and think critically about it. They don't analyze it the way they might study a problem at work, where they may, in fact, bring extremely sharp and and focused analytical skills to bear. Their Christianity is a part of their lives where they are allowed to shed that part of their personalities and immerse themselves in something that feels bigger and more expansive than their own small being.

The entire group believes, it feels right to believe, and believing is the key to joining with them and being a member of the in-group. Not believing (or believing the "wrong" way) puts one in the out-group. The actual existential status of the god they worship is not at issue. It is not a question of factual accuracy, and the bible is not picked over as a collection of truth claims that must be evaluated. The goal is the overall experience of membership and belonging, of being part of something that at best will give you eternal life, and at worst will at least make you a better person.

There is another type of generic Christian that might fall into the "spiritual but not religious" camp. They want to do something for their souls, but aren't sure exactly what. Church seems to be what most people do, and so they choose that obvious route. They may have a friend who told them about a church or even invited them to go as guests. Before long, they are regular attendees, going for some vague reason (like, they feel like they probably should be going to church). When asked if they believe it all, they might respond, "well you never know, anything is possible..." and leave it at that. They might not participate in the community, stick around for the refreshments, or really even enjoy or treasure the experience, but continue going because it seems like the right thing to do. They have chosen the easy route to conventional spirituality, the main road available to middle class America. It didn't involve much decision making or self-reflection, and so they keep going. Who knows, maybe the church has rock music and a fun preacher who can relate current events to bible verses...

Poison for the generic Christian is critical study of the bible and its claims. Bible study is one thing, but people who begin down the path of questioning and doubt, of looking behind the curtain, of investigating the dead ends, inconsistencies, and errors found in the bible are on the road to separation from the group, agnosticism, and/or atheism.

Angels and Demons

A spiritual fad that made its appearance in the 1990s was a fascination with angels. Books, posters, bumper stickers, church sermons, TV shows, plays, and all forms of media highlighted angels interacting with humans, helping them get through life's challenges.

I think there is a difference between those who conceive of these beings as real entities and those who envision them as metaphors and poetic extensions of our best human qualities (and of demons embodying the worst qualities). For those who see them as real, but invisible, beings, I really have no response. If they persist in claiming that they are there but can't be seen, this argument could be made for an infinity of other invisible beings. We don't have the time to argue against all of them, and so won't address any of them.

For those who see angels, along with demons, as figurative, I have more sympathy. As metaphors, they symbolize both the good and the bad in our natures - duty vs. temptation, love vs. hate, generosity vs. greed. Angels represent the sublime, the inspirational, the humanitarian experiences in life. Demons - the opposite - the darker, hateful, mean, and petty. Or as Freud would have it, angels are the superego, and demons are the Id.

People enjoy laughing because it makes them feel good, regardless of whether the topic is funny. They enjoy dancing even when they are terrible dancers. People also enjoy believing in things because those beliefs give them pleasure, regardless of the objective (empirical) factuality of the objects of their beliefs. It is not the correctness of the belief that they value, but the way they feel by believing and by being with others who share those beliefs. Believing in angels is fun and comforting.

For believers, the ontological (existential) status of angels and demons doesn't matter. What matters is the exploration of the experience, the enjoyment of the experience, and if possible, increasing the intensity and frequency of these experiences. Angels can brighten our mood, give hope, and maybe be a friend when we have no others. They help improve our outlook, attitude, mood, and allow us to see things from a more productive and positive perspective. An article by Paul Crume in the Dallas Morning News put it well:

Any adult human being with half sense, and some with more, knows that there are angels. If he has ever spent any period in loneliness, when the senses are forced in upon themselves, he has felt the wind from their beating wings and been overwhelmed with the sudden realization of the endless and gigantic dark that exists outside the little candle flame of human knowledge. He has prayed, not in the sense that he asked for something, but that he yielded himself. Angels live daily at our very elbows, and so do demons, and most men at one time or another in their lives have yielded themselves to both and have lived to rejoice and rue their impulses.

This is poetry, not meant to be a factual recording of a supernatural phenomena. Angels are safe to believe in. They are kind, non-judgmental, and only here to help (like in the movie, It's a Wonderful Life). Demons are easily spotted, playing the melodramatic villain role. In their current incarnations, they straddle the line between New-Age and Christian, which is where many Americans find themselves.

Monday, September 23, 2013

An Empirical Case for Naturalism

This is quoted verbatim from Keith Augustine. I liked it so much I had to repost it. All credit goes to Mr Augustine.

Throughout human history, supernatural causes have been invoked to explain droughts, earthquakes, thunderstorms, comets, the spread of disease, mental illnesses, mystical experiences, the orbits of the planets, the origin of living things, and the origin of the world, among many other phenomena. As the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries flourished, appeals to supernatural causation ultimately gave way to successful scientific explanations of various phenomena in terms of natural causes. Ever since its inception, science has increasingly strengthened the plausibility of naturalism by providing informative accounts of a wide range of phenomena in terms of natural causes. The more science has progressed, the less room there has been for postulating supernatural causes within a scientific account of the world, and if past experience is any guide, the trend will continue well into the future. This trend has led many to conclude that there probably are no genuine instances of supernatural causation. As science explains more of the natural world around us, appeals to supernatural causation become less plausible.

Many philosophers and scientists have concluded that the best explanation for our ability to develop successful scientific explanations for such a wide range of phenomena in terms of natural causes is that there are no genuine instances of supernatural causation. Barbara Forrest, for example, describes naturalism as "a generalization of the cumulative results of scientific inquiry" (Forrest 2000, p. 19). In other words, the best explanation for the success of science is that naturalism is true. Given the proliferation of successful scientific explanations for phenomena, Forrest concludes that there is "an asymptotic decrease in the existential possibility of the supernatural to the point at which it is wholly negligible" (Forrest 2000, p. 25). If naturalism were false, there would be some phenomena that could not be explained solely in terms of natural causes. However, because science can explain all of the uncontroversial phenomena we have encountered in terms of natural causes, there probably are no phenomena which cannot be explained in terms of natural causes. Therefore, naturalism is probably true.

This success of science argument rests on a crucial inductive premise--that we can infer that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes from the ability of science to explain all of the uncontroversial phenomena we have encountered in terms of natural causes. Even if we accept the validity of this inductive inference, we still have to establish that all the uncontroversial phenomena we have encountered so far can be explained scientifically. Since there certainly are uncontroversial phenomena for which we lack successful scientific explanations--consider the prevalent gravitational influence of some unknown form of dark matter in the universe--I will defend a related but stronger argument for naturalism. This argument does not require us to have a successful scientific explanation for all well-established events in order to provide evidential support for naturalism.

A likely candidate for a supernatural event is not necessarily the result of supernatural causation given that meeting the criteria for a likely candidate is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for actually being a supernatural event. Thus, if naturalism is true, it does not necessarily follow that there will be no likely candidates for a supernatural event--it is possible, however unlikely, that a naturally-caused event would also meet the requirements for a likely candidate for a supernatural event. For example, suppose that a subject can induce out-of-body experiences at will in a laboratory setting. During several experimental trials, after this subject has induced an out-of-body experience, infrared cameras capture the outline of a person moving toward a bell which begins to ring in a room adjacent to the location of the subject's normal physical body. If such events occurred today, they would meet all of the criteria for a likely candidate for a supernatural event. Nevertheless, such events might be the result of entirely natural causes which could be understood only in terms of some future science not yet available to us. For example, one might postulate that human organisms possess natural astral bodies made of some unknown form of exotic matter which can detach from normal physical bodies in certain circumstances. In the absence of successful scientific explanations for such phenomena, however, uncontroversial instances of likely candidates for a supernatural event would make supernaturalism more likely to be true than not relative to a background scientific picture lacking natural categories for such events.

Regardless of such possibilities, if there are any events within nature that have supernatural causes, these events will be likely candidates for a supernatural event. Thus, if naturalism is false, there will be events which are likely candidates for a supernatural event. Even without a definitive set of criteria for identifying a supernatural event, we can see the beginnings of an argument for naturalism:
(P1) If naturalism is false then there are events which are likely candidates for a supernatural event.

(P2) There are no events which are likely candidates for a supernatural event.

(C) Therefore, naturalism is not false (i.e. naturalism is true).
Or, to put the argument in another form:
(P1) If there are no events which are likely candidates for a supernatural event then naturalism is true.

(P2) There are no events which are likely candidates for a supernatural event.

(C) Therefore, naturalism is true.
The argument above forms the basic foundation of my defense of naturalism. As stated above, it is too broad to be useful; the crucial second premise simply cannot be established in the absence of omniscience. However, we can modify this argument into a more practical lack of evidence argument:
(P1) If after an intensive search of the natural world scientists and historians have found no uncontroversial evidence for likely candidates for a supernatural event then naturalism is probably true.

(P2) After an intensive search of the natural world scientists and historians have found no uncontroversial evidence for likely candidates for a supernatural event.

(C) Therefore, naturalism is probably true.
The lack of evidence argument assumes that if supernatural causation does occur, prima facie we should have uncontroversial evidence for events which are likely candidates for a supernatural event. There is no reason in principle why the occurrence of such events could not be established conclusively. On the other hand, if supernatural causation does not occur, we should expect to find no uncontroversial evidence for a likely candidate for a supernatural event. If naturalism is true, we will not necessarily fail to find uncontroversial evidence for a likely candidate for a supernatural event. However, we probably will not find such evidence. In other words, if we do find uncontroversial evidence for a likely candidate for a supernatural event, it is more likely than not that supernatural causation does occur and thus that naturalism is false.

Now that I have laid the groundwork for a defense of naturalism based on the lack of uncontroversial evidence for events which would probably have supernatural causes if they occurred, it is time to elaborate upon and defend the premises of the argument. First, since I have already used the crucial phrase without defining it, I want to clarify what I mean by 'uncontroversial evidence'. Uncontroversial evidence is not necessarily replicable experimental evidence, although that would certainly qualify as uncontroversial evidence. By uncontroversial evidence for a proposition I simply mean evidence which would lead any reasonable person to conclude that the proposition is true. For example, we have uncontroversial evidence that slavery was prevalent in 19th century America, that the continents have drifted apart over hundreds of millions of years, that the evolution of species has occurred, and that light is a form of electromagnetic radiation. What these propositions have in common is that they are accepted by a consensus of the experts doing research within the relevant empirical subject matter. Uncontroversial evidence is evidence that generates consensus among the experts in the relevant field.

One might object that science could never falsify naturalism because scientific explanations are never cast in terms of supernatural causes. However, while scientific explanations are inherently naturalistic, scientific discoveries could strongly suggest that an event has occurred which could not plausibly be explained in terms of natural causes. For example, had human beings been the only life to appear on the planet Earth immediately after it was habitable, with no evidence of evolution from previous ancestors and no fossils of extinct species ever found, this would be a scientific discovery which would strongly suggest a supernatural cause of the origin of human beings. Science has undermined the credibility of all forms of supernaturalism not because science assumes that only natural causation occurs as a methodological principle but because science has been successful in using that assumption. There simply are no gaps in our scientific picture of the world which seem to require an appeal to supernatural causes. The simplest and most straightforward explanation for the success of methodological naturalism as a scientific strategy is that metaphysical naturalism is true.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Skeptic's Morality

When I say "morality", I am using this to mean a personal and cultural set of values, codes of conduct, and social mores that distinguish between "right" and "wrong" thoughts, speech, and actions.

I started really thinking through this chapter when recently, a friend repeated a version of the old existential cliché, "I don't believe in any real moral code. I would be a good mass murderer. I could just go out and kill people". First of all, this statement came from one of the most thoughtful and peaceful guys I know. He was trying to make a point, however clumsily, about moral codes. It was basically this: if there is no "absolute" and "objective" moral code, then all morals are relative, which means one moral standard (or lack thereof) is as good as any other. In other words, if we cannot deduce or "prove" a universal morality, and if no god has given us one, then we are allowed to do whatever we want, right? Dostoyevsky's character, Ivan Karamazov said the same thing, "if there is no god, then everything is permitted".

Frequently, that is the first, superficial reaction many people have to their own personal, existential discovery that "god is dead". They think, then, that chaos reigns - the mice will play while the cat's away - we can all just make our own rules, or even have no rules at all. However, just a cursory understanding of what the Existential philosophers, such as Sartre, were trying to accomplish shows exactly the opposite. It is not an argument for anarchy. In their view, because there is no god, and because there are no externally imposed rules we must follow, we (as individuals and communities) have to shoulder the entire responsibility for our actions. We can't share that burden with god. We are free, but with that freedom comes great responsibility. As Eric Fromm wrote, our attempt to "escape from freedom" (existential freedom) is a retreat back to mindless conformity, submission to authority, or self-destructiveness. The responsible alternative is to accept the burden of freedom, and choose your moral path consciously and deliberately.

Because there is no a priori good, and because there is no a priori standard for humanity, and because there is no god, we alone must take control of our actions. Sartre's moral imperative was to "Act if and only if in acting you desire that all men do likewise." It was not to climb a bell tower and shoot people just because you can.

But the existential approach is just one of many. I won't use this chapter to try to outline all of the major moral philosophies. There are quite a few, those that address how society should act, how individuals should act in society, and how individuals should lead their own lives. Among these many competing theories, some of which have been around for millenia, no one of them has been "proven" to be the one right one. Morality is not the type of thing that can be deduced as we could derive a mathematical law or be discovered as we might discover a new element or star.

In my opinion, morality is not "out there" in the world in the sense of existing independently of us as does a solid object. It is not a presence that everyone can observe and agree that they all see the same. Although it lacks that kind of objective existence, it is objective, in the sense that it does exist as a personal and cultural activity - people do recognize rules that they call moral laws. It is objective in the sense that morality, across all human cultures, has the same set of fundamental purposes - to strengthen the community, to reduce strife, chaos and lawlessness, to bind the members closely to its history, to promote behaviors that further its goal of prospering and thriving, and of encouraging conformity and unity of purpose from its members. However these choices will differ from society to society. As a species, we seem to prefer moral rules that promote individual, family, group, national, or cultural well-being. Different cultures emphasize different aspects or moral "pillars" (this idea is expanded further below). Examples can be given of acts that are so abhorrent and vile that we would have difficulty believing that they are not "objectively" evil. But a desire for morals to be objective and external to our minds, may itself be a human psychological preference that we in America want to be true. There is no independent "rule" that a fundamental objective moral framework exist (unless your rulebook is the bible). There are, and there have been, many cultures that engaged or still engage in cannibalism, bestiality, child predation, ritual murder, sacrifice, or torture. And it is not the exception, but the rule, that societies have embraced behaviors and norms that we, today, judge to be highly immoral (slavery, torturing animals for entertainment, discrimination, and oppression of minorities, for example). They didn't consider themselves to be evil, and they probably had high moral standards for whatever they took to be their moral frameworks. If we respect the lessons of history, we have no choice but to conclude that morality is human dependent: a set of choices and judgements and preferences that we make as societies and as individuals. We choose to obey these rules - to honor, and even to regard as them sacred and inviolable. We choose for ourselves, and we allow the society to choose for us if we desire to remain members in good standing. We will that these choices be regarded as true, even "absolutely" true. Although it may be uncomfortable to consider this, they are not "absolutely" true, but they seem to work better if we believe that they are.

Anyone can search through Wikipedia or some other philosophy website and find descriptions of ethical systems, and I recommend doing just that. Other people have done a much better job of defining these than I can or even want to do. The branch of philosophy called "Ethics" deals with moral issues, and "Normative Ethics" deals with what we "ought" to do. For the purposes of this chapter, I will summarize some of the more well known ones very briefly:

  • Virtue ethics emphasizes the role of one's character and the virtues that one's character embodies for determining or evaluating ethical behavior. It is the type of ethical systems recommended by Plato and Aristotle.
  • Deontology judges the morality of an action based on the action's adherence to a rule or rules. It is sometimes described as "duty" or "obligation" or "rule-based" ethics, Kant's "categorical imperitive" was of this type
    • Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law.
    • Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.
    Obeying the rules of god (e.g., the Ten Commandments) is yet another form of a deontological moral system, as is Christ's advice to love one another.
  • Consequentialism (of which Utilitarianism is one type) looks at outcomes of actions and judges the rightness or wrongness based on whether the general well being of some target group is enhanced or diminished. From a Consequentialist standpoint, a morally right action is one that produces a good outcome, or consequence. This view is often expressed as "The ends justify the means".

The difference between these approaches to morality tends to lie more in the way moral dilemmas are approached than in the moral conclusions reached. For example, a Consequentialist may argue that lying is wrong because of the negative consequences produced by lying—though a Consequentialist may admit certain consequences might make lying acceptable. A deontologist might argue that lying is always wrong, regardless of any potential good that might come from lying. A virtue ethicist, however, would focus less on lying in any particular instance and instead consider what a decision to tell a lie or not tell a lie said about one's character and moral behavior.

Hypothetical ethical scenarios can show the weaknesses in each of these systems. None are able to embrace all aspects of morality - each has one or more deficiencies or blind spots. For example, a true utilitarian consequentialist would consider rescuing his own child from an imminent danger to be less important and "consequential" than rescuing two children living a continent away, but if we witnessed a parent making this moral choice (allowing his child to be killed while sending a generous check to Unicef), we would consider that person negligent, or even insane. Deontology can be so mindlessly duty-bound that its followers would make decisions that violate all common sense (not tell a lie even to save a life, for example). A committed virtue ethicist may find himself with competing and conflicting virtues (what if the virtues of kindness and honesty collide, and one must violate one to honor the other?), and it also lacks any particular social focus, emphasizing the individual character above the good of others - in other words, it can tend towards the selfish.

Jonathan Haidt, in his fantastic book, The Righteous Mind brings centuries of moral philosophy together with modern empirical studies and presents a description of how diverse social groups can differ in their moral frameworks, while still basing them on the same fundamental underlying moral pillars. Moral Foundations Theory was created by a group of social and cultural psychologists (including Jonathan Haidt) to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes. In brief, the theory proposes that several innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too.

Based on theory and lots of experimentation as well as synthesizing moral philosophies from Kant, Hume, and Bentham through Peter Singer and a lot of international anthropological studies of both modern and primitive societies (2nd and 3rd world peoples have unfortunately been left out of moral philosophy studies until just the last 20 years or so). It accounts for the gigantic differences of moral opinion between liberal, conservatives, and libertarians. Liberals tend to use the Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating foundations for their judgements of right and wrong, and very little of the others. Conservatives employ the loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation pillars (as well as the care/harm and fairness/cheating). He proposes that the reason that conservatives traditionally have an easier time pulling the emotional heart strings of the voters is that they appeal to a wider spectrum of these moral "tastes" (the author himself is a committed liberal). Of course, Libertarians emphasize the liberty/oppression dimension more than either liberals and conservatives. Each group utilizes liberty/oppression differently: Liberals see capitalists as oppressors of the weak and poor, which interacts with the care/harm pillar. Conservatives see foreign countries and ideologies (Communism, Socialism) as oppressive and threaten our national authority and institutions. Libertarians see our own government as oppressing its citizens, subverting their autonomy and individuality. Anyhow, because these groups differ in their fundamental moral premises, they end up talking past each other, each thinking the other has a poorly formed sense of right and wrong.

The foundations are:

  1. Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
  2. Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
  3. Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.
  4. Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it's "one for all, and all for one."
  5. Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
  6. Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants, and elevated by discipline, self-sacrifice, and a "pure" lifestyle (an idea not unique to religious traditions).
Also from Jonathan Haidt's book:
I was particularly drawn to a new theory of morality Shweder had developed based on his research in Orissa. They found three major clusters of moral themes, which they called the ethics of autonomy, community, and divinity. Each one is based on a different idea about what a person really is.

The ethic of autonomy is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, autonomous individuals with wants, needs, and preferences. People should be free to satisfy these wants, needs, and preferences as they see fit, and so societies develop moral concepts such as rights, liberty, and justice, which allow people to coexist peacefully without interfering too much in each other’s projects. This is the dominant ethic in individualistic societies. You find it in the writings of utilitarians such as John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer (who value justice and rights only to the extent that they increase human welfare), and you find it in the writings of deontologists such as Kant and Kohlberg (who prize justice and rights even in cases where doing so may reduce overall welfare). But as soon as you step outside of Western secular society, you hear people talking in two additional moral languages.

The ethic of community is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, members of larger entities such as families, teams, armies, companies, tribes, and nations. These larger entities are more than the sum of the people who compose them; they are real, they matter, and they must be protected. People have an obligation to play their assigned roles in these entities. Many societies therefore develop moral concepts such as duty, hierarchy, respect, reputation, and patriotism. In such societies, the Western insistence that people should design their own lives and pursue their own goals seems selfish and dangerous — a sure way to weaken the social fabric and destroy the institutions and collective entities upon which everyone depends.

The ethic of divinity is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, temporary vessels within which a divine soul has been implanted. People are not just animals with an extra serving of consciousness; they are children of God and should behave accordingly. The body is a temple, not a playground. Even if it does no harm and violates nobody’s rights when a man has sex with a chicken carcass, he still shouldn’t do it because it degrades him, dishonors his creator, and violates the sacred order of the universe. Many societies therefore develop moral concepts such as sanctity and sin, purity and pollution, elevation and degradation. In such societies, the personal liberty of secular Western nations looks like libertinism, hedonism, and a celebration of humanity’s baser instincts.

So, we have these and many other ways of viewing moral (or ethical) behavior. In this chapter, I'm not attempting to decide which approach is best. I think most people probably adopt a moral system that meshes best with their worldview, their desires, their beliefs, and their values. The question I am interested in is, "why should we bother choosing among them at all? Why be moral?" A deontologist would argue that the reason to be moral is to please god or conform to society's mores. Consequentialists would argue that you are achieving a non-optimal outcome by behaving immorally, and a virtue ethicist would say that acting immorally shows a lack of character. Someone who subscribes to the Moral Foundation Theory, or a similar evolutionary psychological approach would say that we evolved to be moral. But again, what is wrong with displeasing god, damaging overall well-being, or lacking virtue? Are we compelled to have some sort of morality though our individual and group evolution? I think the answer is yes - if we are individually "immoral" (do things we believe to be "wrong") or immoral within our groups, we become personally miserable and unhappy as well as being ostracized and condemned by our community. We choose to be moral because, on the whole, it enhances our lives.

My Own Moral Framework

I subscribe to a combination of several moral frameworks - a cafeteria approach - because it doesn't appear that any one moral philosophy can effectively address all the situations in my life. I am not concerned with god's displeasure or upsetting any other giver of moral laws, but I do find that I am comfortable conforming to rules of conduct when they are not too onerous (I would not dance on the table at a restaurant, or start shouting in a crowded elevator). These are society's rules, and I try to follow them because it would be uncomfortable for me and for everyone if I didn't. So, I confess I am a rule follower some of the time, because it is convenient, requires little effort, and helps smooth the way when interacting with others. Plus, due to my upbringing, I would personally feel uncomfortable taking my shirt off at work, or giving a stranger a backrub on the street. There is nothing inherently wrong with these actions, but they conflict with conventions I have accepted and choose not to fight.

I don't believe there is any evidence of a universal moral code, and plenty of evidence against such a thing. Kant's categorical imperative (a deontological rule), phrased in two ways above, are guidelines that I try to integrate into my choices. I value and respect the virtues of courage, honesty, cool-headedness, humor, kindness, resourcefulness, and many others. I wish I could integrate more of them into my habits. And, like most people, I want to cause more good than harm (a Consequentialist goal). So, I have assimilated content from several of the major Ethical frameworks, which is probably not unusual.

When thinking about how I would respond to hypothetical situations, I frequently turn to Virtue Ethics and find myself evaluating my potential responses in terms of how they reflect on my character, or others' characters, when performing in them. I value virtuous thinking and behavior in myself and others, striving towards excellence, achievement, and effort. I am pleased when I see myself living up to this standard, and disappointed when I fall short. Regarding the "six foundations" described by Haidt, I see evidence of all of them in my makeup, but would tend towards more towards the liberal end of that spectrum, especially with regard to the Authority/Sanctity pillars, though I do hold sacred the gift of life that we have and consider it shameful to waste and degrade ourselves and the life we have the good fortune to be living. And I am probably more individualistic than group focused.

It's not success in life that is the measure, but the process one goes through in the drive towards success, and how a person deals with failure, their resilience. My own answer to the question of morality is Aristotelian or Epicurean - whatever increases my flourishing, and by extension I "will" (wish) that everyone adopt this same value (a la Kant). For each of us, our flourishing, our thriving, can assume different aspects, because they vary from person to person, and from situation to situation. Whatever makes your life a "happy" life in the Eudaimon sense - the ancient Greek sense of being happy, fulfilled, of our lives having been a "good project", of living life well, that we use our limited time and resources in ways that are productive and satisfying, doing interesting, creative, relevant and helpful work for ourselves and others, of having friends and being a good friend.

Aristotle described the eudaimon life life is one of “virtuous activity in accordance with reason”, and Epicurus described it similarly - having pleasurable experiences, good friends, and a meaningful, philosophical life. For Epicurus, "pleasure" was not purely self-indulgent (though I think that, technically, he is a hedonist), rather it involved living modestly, gaining knowledge of how the world works, and learning the limits of one's desires. A life spent in this way would lead one to attain a state of tranquility (ataraxia) and freedom from fear. He said, "It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly. And it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life." This is not entirely dissimilar to the Buddhist Eight-fold path:

  • Right view: looking at life, nature, and the world as they really are
  • Right intention(or right thought): aspiring to move away from that which is wrong and immoral, or as Kant would say, having a "good will"
  • Right speech: abstaining from lying, divisive or abusive speech, and from idle chatter and destructive gossip
  • Right action: morally upright in one's activities, not acting in ways that would be corrupt or bring harm to oneself or to others
  • Right livelihood: not to engage in occupations which, either directly or indirectly, result in harm for other living beings
  • Right effort: making a sustained effort to abandon wrong and harmful thoughts, words, and deeds
  • Right mindfulness: be mindful and deliberate, making sure not to act or speak due to inattention, fickleness, or forgetfulness
  • Right concentration: basically, practicing meditation
  • Right knowledge: seeing things as they really are by direct experience, not as they appear to be, nor as the practitioner wants them to be, but as they truly are
I am not a Buddhist, but I do like their guide to virtuous living. I think that if more people followed these very practical and obvious guidelines, our lives would be much more harmonious.

So far I have described my own personal ethic - how I live my own life. But regarding how I live with others in society, I subscribe to a general form of utilitarianism, meaning we should do things that maximize the well-being (eudaimonia) of the largest number of individuals. Of course, I realize that one can come up with degenerate cases where the maximization of happiness for the majority causes suffering for a few. Life is tough - this is going to happen sometimes. Not everyone can be made happy, and sometimes we will all be the cause of some unhappiness. In general I would try to avoid being the principal agent of harm, as this would would contradict Kant's imperative, and it would not make for a virtuous life.

Regardless of my choices, or all of our choices for our own moral codes, I agree with Haidt in thinking we have laid on a veneer of post-hoc rationality on moral issues which hides a much deeper motivation - we humans want to be moral; we want to do the "right" thing, whatever we conceive that to be. I think it is our nature, it's in our genes and culture, it's in how we evolved in tribes and communities. I would further say that only sociopaths truly don't care about being "good" (in fact, that is almost a circular statement, because lack of caring is a big part of the definition of sociopathy). Humans are hardwired to be good, or to value goodness in others, and to hate evil (i.e., people who cause harm, are unfair, treacherous, oppressive, subversive, and disrespectful). Even other animals demonstrate what could most parsimoniously be interpreted as moral (or possibly "pre-moral") behaviors. Franz de Waal, an expert primatologist, has demonstrated to my satisfaction in books like Good Natured, and others, that gorillas, elephants, chimpanzees, dogs, and many other intelligent mammals show the basics of what, in humans, evolved into a moral code. They are either born with them, learn them, or are born with the ability to learn them. They care for their injured, show generosity, have patience, experience grief at the death of kin and friends, rejoice, can be kind, be protective and nurturing, work on their reputations, appreciate the reputations of others, recognize injustice, and become upset by unfair situations.

So, I think that human hominids, like their ape cousins are implicitly moral, or have a moral instinct. Because of our higher intelligence, language, and complex societies, we have created sophisticated laws, customs, taboos, and rituals to teach and enforce common moral codes. Complex societies motivate the creation of complex moral systems - they are the glue that hold the society together. Philosophies have sprung up to rationalize and explain the morality, but the pre-logical, innate moral sense came first. As in religion, (to paraphrase Hume) reason is the slave of passion. The desire for goodness and to be recognized as being good (however we choose to define it) drives the rational systems that explain it. Without the underlying desire, there would be no motivation for doing good or for doing evil. Again Hume: "It is not against reason that I should prefer the destruction of half the world to the pricking of my little finger." It is the desire for the good that drives good action. Again, "good" is not an absolute term, but interpreted by each individual.

So, as individuals, we must decide on our values and priorities - what do we want? As Kant defined it, do we want to have a "good will", the desire to do good and to wish well to others? If so, then we will be choose to be ethical and moral, according to whatever model of goodness we believe in. If we do not (and I think that very few people fully reject this in their lives, though some do) then there is no particular need to choose a moral path. However, if one chooses to live with other people, he will quickly find that is impossible to succeed without an ethical framework that conforms in most important respects with that of his community, even in a community of outlaws and outcasts. If one's desire is to be part of any community, then one must have a moral code consistent with the mores and standards of that community. Any other path would yield only discouragement and failure.

Monday, April 8, 2013

A religious skeptic's view of the world

Not only am I a non-theist (or atheist) but can also characterize myself as a Realist, or more specficially, a Philosophical Realist. I believe that "truth" is measured by the mind's correspondence to reality. I am also a skeptic (in the modern sense). The pre-modern definition of philosophical skepticism included doubt about the existence of external reality and our ability to really know anything (Descartes was of this school), and that no proposition could be shown to be any more likely than any other. But that is not generally what modern skepticism is about, nor is it what I am about. The Greek root of "skeptic" is to seek, or to examine, and that is exactly what skepticism in the modern sense is - an inquiry. Modern skeptics accept that they don't have certain knowledge, but they look for the best, most reliable knowledge they can find. Lack of complete certainty doesn't imply that we can't have greater degrees of confidence in some proposals than others. We acknowledge that we can't know things for sure, in the sense of having 100% certainty, but we can increase our confidence through evidence and through reasoning. So, keeping that in mind, I accept that the world is pretty much like our senses, and our science shows it to be. To anyone who would make a counter-claim, I ask that they give me good reason to accept their alternative. To give it another name, I am also a Philosophical Naturalist - I think that the observable universe is all there is, and is all that we need to concern ourselves with. Other metaphysics (Idealism, Subjectivism, Relativism, Solipsism, Dualism, Monism, etc) so blatantly contradict common experience or are so obscure that I can't accept them. The only philosophical choice which the evidence of our experience supports with every action we take is Realism. When we look both ways when we cross the street it is because at our core, we are all realists.

Regarding how we come to know the world and ourselves (my epistemology), everything we know comes from outside through our senses and inside from our minds (which is really just our minds sensing activity in other parts of our minds). There is no special revelation from supernatural entities. The real world exists, and although we may be constrained in our ability to experience it by our limited senses and minds, it is out there, and we are in it. To those who say we can't experience "ultimate reality", I question if this is even a meaningful concept (what is it other than actual reality?). We are in "ultimate reality". Every one of our cells is constrained to operate in the 4 dimensional space-time web which constitutes reality. In fact, we can't escape it - where else would we go? What we see and know of the universe may only be an approximation of some more high-resolution view of reality, but every new scientific observation brings us closer to understanding it. That journey towards greater understanding has not come from religion or mythology, but from controlled observation, experiment, and theory. If there is anything else that is knowable, it will probably come about as a direct result of the continued investigations of mathematics, the sciences, engineering, exploration, and creation (both scientific and artistic). Already science has shown us a universe trillions of times larger and infinitely more intricate than anything conceived of by the religions and myths of pre-scientific societies.

Do things exist which aren't material - yes, of course. It really depends on what we mean by the word, "exist", which is probably too weak and non-specific a word to encompass what is we refer to when we say it. Frequently "existence" is applied both to material objects and to non-material entities: processes, flows, relationships, behaviors, evolution, and other dynamic aspects of complex (i.e., more than one object involved) systems. Obviously, emotions and feelings "exist". We humans (and probably other animals) clearly have inner lives. Love, hate, loyalty, treachery, and all the other human emotions "exist", but more in the sense of how relationships or processes exist. There are no emotional "atoms" that can be weighed and measured. But it is probable (neuroscience and evolutionary biology are very close to showing this) that the human emotions that give us reasons to keep on living are outgrowths of very physical processes in the brain. That doesn't make them any less important, just as knowing how a rainbow, opera, flower, or sonnet works doesn't make them any less beautiful. To those who would say, "if you can accept that love and loyality exist though you can't hold them in your hand, then why can you not also accept god?". The answer is that unlike love and loyalty, there is no evidence of a god, no reason to believe in a god, any more than there is a reason to believe in the infinity of other concepts that can be thought of which also don't exist. Knowing that a few immaterial "things" exist (emotion, change, the future, the past) is no argument for thinking every immaterial thing exists. Each requires its own rationale and reason for deserving our belief.

Material objects (including ourselves) are in the world. Those objects interact - they have relationships to each other and influence each other. Processes and phenomena occur, objects change internally and with respect to each other through time. Because of our cognitive apparatus, we create models of both the objects of the world, their relationships, and how both of these evolve through time. We see the universe work as it does, and build intricate mathematical and logical systems that correspond to the world.

"Embodied mind" theories hold that mathematical and logical thought is a natural outgrowth of the human cognitive apparatus which finds itself in our physical universe. For example, the abstract concept of number springs from the experience of living in a world where there are discrete objects that can be counted. I feel quite certain that if the universe did not have this feature (separate objects), that the theory of number would probably not have come about. Although it is not the dominant theory, I think that logical systems are a result of the human propensity to create mental models of their experiences. We construct, but do not discover, mathematics. Embodied mind theorists explain the effectiveness of mathematics by arguing that mathematics was constructed by the brain in order to be effective in this universe. It is part of our natural "model making" cognitive functioning. With this view, the physical universe can thus be seen as the ultimate foundation of mathematics: it guided the evolution of the brain and later determined which questions this brain would find worthy of investigation.

Regarding "laws of nature", I group them together with mathematical and logical objects. The "laws of nature" and do not cause the universe to be as it is. The universe is already as it is, and the laws are our human attempt to organize these experiences in ways that we can describe them, explain them, and predict them. An apple doesn't fall from the tree because Newton came up with the formulas for gravitational attraction, the formulas describe (and predict) how objects fall, and how they will fall in the future.

I am not a reductionist, in the sense that I don't think all phenomena and processes can ultimately be reduced to their lowest primitive elements (physical laws). The ultimate in reductionism would be to claim that quantum theory should eventually be able to explain not only how subatomic particles behave, but how atoms and molecules form, how cells come into being, now animals work, and finally how humans and human societies work. No, I am an "emergentist". I think new properties and behaviors spontaneously emerge as complexity increases. The characteristics of water (its wetness, its freezing point, boiling point, and chemical properties) spontaneously emerge as water molecules form from hydrogen and oxygen. We cannot "average" the characteristics of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom to predicts what their chemical combination (H2O) will be like. The properties of water emerge as water (a more complex thing) is built from oxygen and hydrogen (less complex things). As molecules form, organic compounds are created, life emerges, intelligence evolves, and civilizations are born and die, new properties and behaviors spring into existence with each change in structure and complexity. The ultimate in complex properties - consciousness, intelligence, and human culture, exist in ourselves and our civilizations. Some physicists think that the lowest level of complexity - the subatomic particles themselves - may also be emergent entities that are born from the interaction of fields that pervade space (as discussed in Every Thing Must Go, by James Ladyman).

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Instead of god...

Reading the above chapters should make it clear that I don't have any faith or belief in an external, omniscient, all powerful, anthropomorphic god. I also see any figurative characterizations of god as being a state of mind, or all around us, or inside us, or beyond human comprehension, as poetic exercises, not statements of how things actually are.

We have all heard versions of the aphorism, "people believe what they want to believe". That statement is cynical, but not completely false. What people want, what they value, does influence what they choose to believe, and I am no exception. Ultimately most of us center our beliefs on something that, to varying degrees, satisfies and harmonizes with those values and desires. Some people crave salvation, so they seek a god who can save them. Some want inner peace, so they are attracted to a religion that can help them achieve that. Some desire community, so the social aspect of religion is what they focus on. Some value tradition and ritual, and there are plenty of religions that offer those. Many people want certainty and removal of doubt, so they look for an authoritative god who tells them "the answer". Others seek enlightenment, so they practice meditation and transcendence exercises. What people want guides their very rational search for a god that works for them. As Hume said, "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions". We use reason and logic as tools to help us achieve what we already want. This doesn't mean that logic is arbitrary or relative, but it does mean that without a starting point of desire, logic can't motivate or move us to action or decision.

So, what do I value, what do I want? I don't care about salvation - I never think about it. And I know it sounds crass, but I also don't really care about maximizing my inner peace - I'm suppose I'm basically at an "OK" peace level, neither too anxious nor too relaxed. Sure, I would like to be happier, but I don't want to be "blissed out", and I don't think a god is going to make me happy, anyway. How about the welfare of others and making the world a better place? Of course, who doesn't want that? But to judge by my actions, I sure don't put much effort into it - no more than most, and less than many, I suppose. What I want, and what I value (as far as god-focused thoughts go) is to believe true things, and to disbelieve false things. I want to stay firmly footed in reality. It matters to me that my beliefs have a high correspondence to what actually exists and not refer to imaginary entities. I don't like being hoodwinked. In other words, I am a hard core Realist. Given that, I have considered and rejected the arguments for god's existence, which include these and many others:

  • The argument from design is primitive and childish.
  • God of the gaps is an embarrassing failure of ignorance.
  • Arguments from personal revelation are unbelievable, contradictory, and weak.
  • Appeal to consequences arguments are self-serving and irrational.
  • There is no need for a god to define values and morality. Plato's "Euthyphro" dialog showed how we know morality without a god showing it to us.
  • God as a creator of the universe begs the question, "who created god?". If one is comfortable with "he has always existed" or "he created himself, ex nihilo", I have three responses:

    1. How could you claim to know how God came into being? No one knows this! You may have faith in an ancient story about god and creation, but that is all.
    2. If you are comfortable postulating an entity that either springs into existence itself, or which can create itself, then let's just take god out of the equation and say that one of those methods is how the universe was created. Reduce the number of unexplained creations events by one.
    3. In fact, we don't know exactly how the universe came into being. Of those things we don't know, we are wiser to admit our ignorance rather than invent wild religious claims and "just-so" stories to explain them.
    God as creator is a useless, redundant, and unhelpful concept.

Do I know for a fact, with utter certainty that there is no god? Of course not. For entities of the type people refer to as god, "you can't prove a negative". We can't prove Bigfoot doesn't exist, we can't prove alien abductions don't occur, we can't prove there are no fairies in my garden, we can't prove Russell's teapot is not orbiting the Sun. However, using induction and "inference to best explanation", I have chosen among the available set of possible explanations for my experience in the world, and god is not part of it. The most economical (i.e., parsimonious) explanation, the one requiring the creation of the fewest entities, is that we live in a naturalistic universe, and that the observable universe is all there is. Of course I understand that there is dark energy, dark matter, etc, etc. Depending on your definition of "observable", you can't really see these things. But we know they exist because we see their impact and how they interact with the rest of the universe. But god didn't show us those things - we found them ourselves without a god's help. As I wrote in the chapter on Atheism:

For all past generations no clear evidence [for god] has been presented (short of personal testimony, questionable documentation, and muddled reports of miracles). We have no reason to anticipate any new compelling evidence is forthcoming anytime soon. Therefore, we are probably justified in inferring that god probably doesn't exist.

...To paraphrase from Stephen Jay Gould's description of scientific facts, atheists can't have "absolute certainty" of god's non-existence. They can only say that it is "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent."

If I had to commit right here, right now, I would confidently go with the "doesn't exist" option.

I am keenly aware that god's domain of influence is systematically being whittled away as we learn more about how the world actually works, rather than relying on how we wish it worked. Centuries ago, he was credited with practically everything - births, deaths, miracles, floods, good and bad harvests, etc, etc. Every time that religious apologists have been sacked behind their scrimmage line, they cede the lost territory, and simply move the goal post further back, claiming more and more esoteric ground for their god. The few remaining areas in which they claim god's influence is unarguably dominant are consciousness, morality, life, the creation of the universe, natural laws, life after death, and the like. But as we have seen, even those formerly impregnable mysteries are being unraveled by scientific investigation. If the past is any predictor of the future, many of these will also fall by the wayside as the human mind whittles away at those riddles. I have very little doubt that whatever most people intend when they envision some kind of external deity is riddled with ill-formed concepts, the kind of misconceptions which fuel Ignosticism.

So, I don't need a god. I don't need to invent one (or more than one) to balance my life and peace of mind. I am comfortable knowing that there is no master plan, and that it is not true that "everything happens for a reason". So, what do I believe? I believe that any meaning or significance that comes into our lives enters through our relationships, our inner lives, and how we interact with the world we live in. Our purpose, and "why we are here" is all an inner issue. There is no externally imposed purpose, no "primary purpose" for us individually or as a species. The whole idea that species have a purpose is called teleonomy, and it's been abandoned by biologists for a long time. If you are talking about a biological purpose, then I suppose our purpose is to reproduce. But that is not what most people intend when they question meaning and purpose in their lives. I think that "purpose" and "meaning" are human constructs. Therefore we make up our purposes at the individual level and the societal levels as aggregations of individuals. But you can't point to any external source or reference and say, "Yes, the purpose of the human race (or for me individually) is to do this or that". Of course, we can ask if it would be a "good idea" to put our individual and group resources to work in those directions to achieve those purposes. Is it a good idea for humankind to spread life into the lifeless places in the universe, or is it good to expand our understanding and knowledge of the world? Is it good to save humanity from suffering and increase the general wellfare? Is it our purpose to live a full and satisfying life? Well, maybe or maybe not. However, I wouldn't call any of those "Purposes" - they are more like "Projects".

Humans use god as a metaphor, a cognitive and cultural symbol and tool for coping with our individual thoughts, and for helping our societies and cultures bind and work efficiently. Across all cultures, the mind slips naturally to an anthropomorphic god who cares about us, thinks like us, but is more powerful than us in all ways. We appear to need a heavenly parent figure to fill the psychological void left by the demotion of our real parents to mere humans as our minds develop and experiences show them to not be super-human. An external god does not exist, but the idea of it certainly does exist in individuals and groups.

So, how to respond to those who think this results in a meaningless and purposeless universe? My answer: You create your own meaning. Many people believe that meaning comes from outside, or that there is some external standard or set of goals that is created for them (religious, material, experiential, political). But ultimately, individuals decide which of these or other goals and aims they will integrate into their lives.

As Paul Kurtz wrote in his book "Affirmations" (you can watch him read this section at Paul Kurtz video.

The meaning of life is not to be found in secret formulas discovered by ancient prophets or modern gurus who withdraw from living to seek quiet contemplation and release. Life has no meaning per se; it does, however, present us with innumerable opportunities, which we can either squander and retreat from in fear or seize with exuberance. These can be discovered by anyone and everyone who can energize an inborn zest for living. They are found within living itself, as it reaches out to create new conditions for experience.

Eating of the fruit of the tree of life gives up the bountiful enthusiams for living. The ultimate value is the conviction that life can be found good in and of itself. Each moment has a kind of preciousness and attractiveness. The so-called secret of life is an open scenario that can be deciphered by everyone. It is found in the experiences of living: in the delights of a fine banquet, the strenuous exertion of hard work, the poignant melodies of a symphony, the appreciation of an altruistic deed, the excitement of an embrace from someone you love, the elegance of a mathematical proof, the invigorating adventure of a mountain climb, the satisfaction of quiet relaxation, the lusty singing of an anthem, the vigorous cheering in a sports contest, the reading of a delicate sonnet, the joys of parenthood, the pleasure of friendship, the quiet gratification of serving our fellow human beings—in all these activities and more.

It is in the present moment of experience as it is brought to fruition, as well as in the delicate memories of past experiences and the expectations of future ones, that the richness of life is exemplified and realized. The meaning of life is that it can be found to be good and beautiful and exciting on its own terms for ourselves, our loved ones, and other sentient beings. It is found in the satisfaction intrinsic to creative activities, wisdom, and righteousness.

One doesn’t need more than that, and we hope that one will not settle for less. The meaning of life is tied up intimately with our plans and projects, the goals we set for ourselves, our dreams, and the successful achievement of them. We create our own conscious meanings; we invest the cultural and natural worlds with our own interpretations. We discover, impose upon, and add to nature.

Clearly, Kurtz uses the word "meaning" in a different way than one uses it when discussing the meaning (or definition) of a word as you would find in a dictionary. Nor is it the type of meaning that a phrase or sentence has when it is spoken or interpreted. It isn't the type of meaning found in a poem, story, or novel. If one interprets the question, "what is the meaning of life?" using one of these forms of "meaning", then the question doesn't even make sense. Life cannot be looked up in dictionary or in some instruction manual. It would be futile to expect an answer to the question using that form of "meaning". What type of answer would even be constitute a satisfactory response? Before attempting to answer that kind of question, I would challenge the questioner to come up with a useful answer to "what does a stone mean?" or "what does an ant mean?". When reduced to this kind of simple form, the absurdity of the question becomes clear. Ants and stones have no meaning - they just are, they exist for whatever reason they found themselves in their current locations, and they do what stones or ants do.

The question might be better expressed as "what is the purpose of your existence?, why are we here?, what gives your life purpose? What drives you? What do you live for and strive for? What are you passionate about? What motivates, what thrills you? What gives you peace and satisfaction? What gives your life color, purpose, and significance? What do you spend your time on when you can choose exactly what you would like to do?" These are questions that can actually be answered, and each answer will make sense and be relevant only to the person answering. The "meaning" for each person comes from themselves, regardless of whether they believe they have received a meaning from outside or are answering to a higher calling. Even when they have adopted the goals, purposes, and intentions of the group to which they have joined, ultimately the individual chooses the meaning.

I mostly agree with Paul Kurtz - we create our own meaning/purpose, and in living life we encounter many opportunities to find meaning. However, I myself, and I think most people go through much of their daily living without close inspection of their reasons for living, and purpose for being alive. We do what we do, and we keep doing it day after day. Only occasionally do I become introspective and ask myself questions like this. But the last time I did it I realized I hadn't really made any progress in coming up with a coherent answer. I was always answering the question from scratch. So, this chapter puts it all together in one place.

Camus' raised the question: If life has no purpose, then isn't suicide preferable than living in a world without god and meaning? He posed the question only to show that this would be a coward's way out - suicide is the rejection of freedom. He concluded that in a world without god, we are free to make our own way in the world. He thought that fleeing from the absurdity of reality into illusions, religion or death is not the right way out. Instead of fleeing the absurd meaninglessness of life, we should embrace life passionately. This is the secular way, and it is my way. Here are a couple of quotes that sum up my view and reflect Paul Kurtz's philosophy:

"Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer." - Joseph Campbell

"I believe that I am not responsible for the meaningfulness or meaninglessness of life, but that I am responsible for what I do with the life I've got." - Hermann Hesse

But what about the missing religious sense? Religion can give its practitioners a wonderful feeling of security and comfort. That false sense of security is factually baseless (there is not going to be an afterlife - sorry). But to the faithful, believing the lie feels terrific. Wouldn't a secular philosophy that offered no such security and hope for eternal life be dry and passionless? How can such a life lacking belief rise above somber and sober participation in mere physical processes, in a dreadful daily grind of continued purposeless existence? How can such a supposedly "empty" life compete with the awe, the thrill, and devotion a believer gives to his god? Well, sure, there is not much in the secular worldview that will make you feel quite as great as thinking you will be playing a harp in god's orchestra up in the clouds for eternity, that you have won the celestial lottery. Instead of putting my belief in an outrageous falsehood, I found my answer in something I talked about earlier - a naturalistic spirituality. This worldview replaces traditional religious submission and worship with awe, wonder, inspiration, and reverence for the beauty and magnificence of life and of the sheer fact of existence. An exuberant embrace of life, living, loving, and engagement fills the need for connection to something larger than one's self. It requires a 21st century reinterpretation of obsolete religious sentiments, a new language and conceptualization of the immaterial, transcendent aspects of being alive. Confidence that we have one life in front of us, and that we have one chance to make the most of it is a marvelous motivator to focus on living one's best life.

As I wrote in a previous entry, the new sense of "spiritual" in this language is not supernatural, but instead connotes the immaterial, indefinable, non-rational aspect of being human. Instead of referring to immaterial spirits or souls, it looks instead to the ineffable, more fundamental aspects of human experience. Lacking belief in spirits, ghosts, and gods does not strip one of the shared human experience of transcendent joy. It only frees them from superstitions, allowing them to see more clearly how the world really is. It truly is lifting the scales from our eyes. We no longer believe that everything we don't understand is due to the actions of some god or the other. Instead, we look forward to being part of a living force that moves gradually, unevenly, but unstoppably, toward gaining that understanding ourselves, through our own efforts and abilities. We draw inspiration from nature, answers from reason and experience, comfort from friends and family, and morality from our own inner voices. We see no need for superstitious belief; it only misleads and divides us.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

God as Cultural Adaption

Jonathan Haidt proposes in his book, The Righteous Mind, that our concepts of divinity and god spring from evolutionary adaptions going back many thousands of years. In his view, religion and religions' gods came about as cultural tools to aid in creating community solidarity, stability, and respect for cultural norms. Religious rituals and beliefs were more about forming strong community bonds, and that gods were instruments in that formation.

He sees god as a byproduct of evolution and culture. Religion has always generated positive "social capital" for its members. It allows them to trust each other, knowing everyone in the group has the same world view. As political scientist Robert Putnam put it, the social capital that is generated by religious (and other types of) groups “makes us smarter, healthier, safer, richer, and better able to govern" more justly and with more stability. It is a valuable asset for a community in that it makes it more stable, stronger, and unified. It is an enforcer of law, order, commonly agreed upon standards, and morality, and is a strong cultural binding agent. Modern religion is an expression of our ancient tribal nature and is, and always has been, adaptive in an evolutionary sense.

Religion exploits cognitive "switches" in the brain/mind that presumably evolved as survival adaptations. For example, our "agency detection" capabilities have been with us for tens of thousands of years. Our assumption that some intelligent agent is behind otherwise unexplainable events eventually resulted in the human creation of gods as those causal agents. There seems also to be a "switch" that rewards individuals for their participation in a local/parochial group (or tribe). Membership in a religion (or bowling league, debate team, professional work group, sports team, rave, mob, social movement, etc) is inherently gratifying, allowing the individual to temporarily transcend the limitations and concerns of the "self" and allow the group norms and goals to take priority. Churches fill this need perfectly, better than practically any other type of organization. Research shows that organizations (like religions, cults, military and criminal organizations) that require great sacrifices in belief, action, relationships, information flow, property, and individual rights give back to the participants a proportional feeling of belonging and comfort, and create a very stable operating unit. For example, communes based on religion (whatever the religion) have a much higher survival rate years or decades later than secular or ideologically based communes. People appear to seek out and embrace group membership, especially in groups that require a lot from its members.

In the last 15,000 years (during the Holocene epoch), human cultural AND genetic evolution reached a fever pitch as population grew and civilization took root, that is, as we became cultural creatures living in large groups. Our religious minds and institutions are products of biological and cultural evolution. They became more complex and refined as we gathered into societies, and probably helped those societies succeed rather than dissolve through the still controversial, but increasingly accepted mechanism of evolutionary group selection (as opposed to the more widely known and accepted individual selection). These byproducts, these cognitive/cultural/social adaptions, came under the sway of natural selection. There is not a solid wall between genetic and cultural evolution - instead they should be thought of as two strands which can be viewed together because they really are interwoven. What we do with those religious minds is just as culturally constructed as everything else we do. Large organized religions with beliefs in afterlife are relatively recent innovations when taken in long-term anthropological context. They really only emerged after the development of agriculture in larger scale societies. Once humans started living in chiefdoms and small, stable towns, gods got much more complicated and moralistic. This had to happen to prevent these larger groups from disintegrating into smaller feuding tribal factions.

The religious mind is much more than an unmodified byproduct of evolutionary changes that happened 50,000 years ago. It has been strongly shaped by our social evolution. Religious beliefs, shared and enforced by a group of like-minded individuals, promote and combine interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible. As David Sloan Wilson put it, they help people “to achieve together what they cannot achieve on their own.”

Haidt and Wilson echo Émile Durkheim, an early 20th century sociologist. In his book, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Durkheim attempted to identify the social origin and function of religion, as he felt that religion was a source of camaraderie and solidarity. His second purpose was to identify links between certain religions in different cultures, finding a common denominator. He wanted to understand the empirical, social aspect of religion that is common to all religions, which goes beyond the concepts of spirituality and god. He defined religion as:

...a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, i.e., things set apart and forbidden--beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.
In this definition, Durkheim avoids references to the supernatural or to god. He argued that the concept of the supernatural is relatively new, tied to the development of science and the separation of supernatural — that which cannot be rationally explained — from the natural, that which can. Thus, according to Durkheim, for early humans, there was no distinction. Everything one encountered in life was what we moderns would call supernatural.

Durkheim studied emotions related to group membership. These emotions bind us to the group or social entity as a whole. They manifest themselves primarily in the relationships of the society with other societies. When we act under the influence of these group-directed emotions, we become a part of a whole, whose actions we follow, and whose influence we are subject to.

The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation ... What is moral is everything that is a source of solidarity, everything that forces man to regulate his actions by something other than his own egoism.
Our religious, righteous minds made it possible for human beings — but no other animals — to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship. If you think about religion as only being a set of beliefs about supernatural agents, you’re bound to misunderstand and underestimate it. You’ll see those beliefs as foolish delusions, perhaps even as parasites that exploit our brains for their own benefit, or at a minimum a cause of inefficiency, ignorance, and waste. But if you take Durkheim's approach to religion, which focuses on belonging and the power of unified groups, you get a very different picture. You see that religious practices have been binding our ancestors into groups for tens of thousands of years. The cost of that binding involves some blinding as well. Once any person, book, or principle is declared sacred, then devotees can no longer question it or think clearly about it.